In 2002 Belgium became the second country in the world, after The Netherlands, to legalize euthanasia.
“Euthanasia” (or “mercy killing”) means intentionally killing a person in order to relieve suffering. This is slightly different from “physician assisted suicide” (legal in Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Montana), where a doctor prescribes a lethal cocktail of drugs, but the patient must self-administer the cocktail.
The Belgian law permits adults (18+) who claim to be undergoing “unbearable psychological or physical suffering” to be killed by lethal injection with the consent of two physicians.
In 2002, 24 deaths were recorded under the new law. The number rose to 500 in 2008; and to 1,432 in 2012. Euthanasia now represents about two per cent of all deaths in the country.
“The girl that nobody wanted” Belgium’s ten-year old experiment with euthanasia came under fire last week when a woman was voluntarily put to death after a botched sex change operation left her feeling like a “monster.”
Nancy Verhelst was born in 1969. Her mother already had two sons. When she got pregnant again she dreamed of a third. But Nancy was born. “When I first saw ‘Nancy’, my dream was shattered,” the mother told a Belgium newspaper last week after the suicide; “she was so ugly.”
The two never bonded and Nancy predictably came to despise her biological sex. In the hours before her death, she referred to herself as “the girl that nobody wanted.” Between 2009 and 2012 Nancy underwent three operations to transform her body into the body of a male. After the third—penis construction surgery—the 44 year old, now called Nathan, was so disgusted with her body and herself that she requested death on the grounds of “unbearable psychological suffering”.
Nancy takes her place among the doleful roll of Belgium’s euthanized in the past two years, alongside a 44-year-old woman suffering with chronic anorexia, a Nobel laureate with cancer, a sick prisoner serving a long jail sentence, deaf identical twins who found out they were going blind, and a 64-year-old woman suffering from chronic depression.
Although the law requires patients to be conscious when they ask their doctors to die, a 2010 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that 32 percent of the patients who were euthanized in Belgium in 2007 never explicitly requested death. The UK’s Daily Mail reported last week that 47% of Belgium’s assisted deaths go unreported.
One giant step backwards One might have hoped that Nancy’s sad story would have prompted Belgian lawmakers to reconsider the social utility of the decade old law. But like spendthrifts everywhere, when signs of problems arise, they just spend more. Rather than prompting a reconsideration of the law, the Belgian Parliament began debating this week whether to extend their euthanasia law to include children and those suffering from long-term “diseases of the brain” such as Alzheimer’s.
The bill, submitted by Belgium’s Socialist party, would permit children under 18 to die by lethal injection with their parents’ consent if a child psychologist signs off on it. In the case of those suffering from Alzheimer’s, patients would need to designate their choice for death while still compos mentis. The choice would be carried out later when doctors decide the illness was sufficiently advanced, “even if on the surface they appeared to be happy and well” (UK’s Independent).
Collective self-reflection With whom does culpability rest for Nancy’s unbelievably tragic situation? With the grossly negligent surgeons who cut up her body to satisfy her disordered cravings? With the psychologists who told her it would help her feel better? With her solipsistic mother who from her birth rejected her femininity? With the amoral Parliamentarian-do-gooders who legislatively paved the way for her self-destruction? With the bobble-head pundits who mechanically nodded to her about tolerance and autonomy? With the gender activists who told her that gender is self-defining and bodies are irrelevant? With the euthanizing doctors who walked away from her corpse saying to each other, “what a shame, what a shame”? With the victim herself? Can victims also be perpetrators? There’s certainly plenty of culpability to go around.
Coming to a theatre near you It may or may not be true that ‘the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.’ Perhaps Dante was bluffing. Be that as it may, we mustn’t be naïve. Belgian end-of-life morality has already breached our levee system in the States and is pouring into our communities. Other than ‘gay rights’, right-to-die is the most vociferous and mobilized ideology on the national scene. In the past twenty years, 135 legislative proposals in 27 states have been initiated. Most have been defeated. Four states have legalized assisted suicide. The ideology has found its way into our end of life documents, into the philosophy of the hospice and palliative care movements, and into the attitudes of most mainstream bioethicists and many in our medical community. People’s inhibitions against it are wearing down. If we maintain neutrality, we’ll be Belgium in a decade.
‘Social consensus’ means everything in the US, even if there’s no consensus but merely a minority of very vocal activists who shout louder than the rest. If we don’t want mercy killing in our hospitals and hospices, we need to speak up. ‘Right-to-die’, whether we’re ready or not, is coming to a theatre near you.
Christian Brugger writes for Culture of Life, from where this article is adapted.